Sunday, February 01, 2009

Herbert Spencer and the ASCSA

Coinciding with Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, three new books have been published on the scientist's intellectual environment, and reviewed by Christopher Benfey, "Charles Darwin Abolitionist" (p. 11) and Debby Applegate, "Intellectual Selection" (p. 10), NYT Book Review (Feb. 1, 2009),

1) Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views of Human Evolution
2) Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life
3) Barry Werth, Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America.

The upsurge of Darwinian scholarship has also brought attention to an almost forgotten theorist, Herbert Spencer (above), whose influence outstripped Darwin's in late-19th-c America. Spencer, who coined the term "survival of the fittest," shared Darwin's principles of competition and adaptation but extended their applicability onto politics. Spencer argued that people developed into characters with inherent social worth; the best emerged at the top and the worst sunk to the bottom. This deterministic model accepted social stratification as natural, matching the competitive notions of capitalism and its lack of compassion for the losers. Industrialists like Andrew Carnegie were devout followers of Spencer and deployed him against organized labor and social reform. As Debby Applegate observes in her review, Spencerism shares some similarities to contemporary notions, "as Americans are reassessing their belief that social progress will grow naturally out of unfettered free-market competition." Interestingly enough, fundamentalist Americans that reject Darwin's evolution today (for Creative Design) have implicitly accepted Spencer's social evolution. In 1882, crowds squeezed into Delmonico's Restaurant in New York to celebrate Spencer as the greatest thinker of the 19th c. The match between the British theorist and his capitalist followers created a capitalist sociology with a long afterlife.

Spencer's incredible popularity in the U.S. makes me think of the mindset that American archaeologists brought to their fieldwork in Greece. Reading through the writing of members of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, for example, has given me hints of Spencerism. In the 1920s, Americans were intellectual lightweights compared to the Europeans. But they did have Spencer. To apply Orientalist critiques on these Americans is, of course, very instructive, but I suspect that we must look also consider the stratigraphy of an evolutionary class. Capitalist Americans did not bring an imperialist sense of superiority (it's too early for that), but an evolutionary superiority applicable to fellow, but poorer, Americans. Modern Greeks like poor Americans had essential character flaws that kept them from progressing. J. Lawrence Angel's essay, "Skeletal Material from Attica," Hesperia 14 (1941), pp. 279-363, suggests an evolutionary perspective, for sure.

In order to make a compelling cultural history of the American School, however, we must do more documentary research. What were the archaeologists reading? How entrenched was Spencerism in the popular notions of the American monied elites? On July 8, 1929, archaeologist Alison Frantz wrote to her mother, "I might stay in Phaleron which is on the sea and only about two miles from Athens. I could play golf and swim in the mornings and read the Decline of the West or go up to Athens and work in the Library, or amble around the Acropolis in the afternoon." (Box 8, Folder 1, Alison Frantz Papers, Princeton University Library). Insignificant as this piece of correspondance may seem, it reveals that Frantz was reading Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West. The rare clue of extra-curricular philosophical readings might illuminate Frantz's own theory of history. Spengler provided a gloomy, pessimistic view of western culture, a critique of money and democracy. Spengler grows out of German idealistic tradition that would have been quite foreign to an American reader. Assuming that Frantz came to Greece with an American Spencerian anthropology, the reading of Spengler would have encouraged its dismantling.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States